The South African freedive Champion Beth Neale, also known as @onebreathbeth on instagram, is on a journey to explore the best diving spots in the world. As a Master Freediving Instructor, ocean conservationist and filmmaker, she feels completely at home when she is in the water. Beth Neale tells us about her first experiences in the water, her love and passion for diving, and the best dive spots and experiences in the Maldives.
1. When did you first fall in love with the ocean?
I’ve loved the ocean for as long as I can remember. I grew up in landlocked Johannesburg, South Africa, but I would go on holiday to the coast every summer with my family. I always loved being in the water and I was happiest pretending to be a mermaid growing up. When I was 18, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of swimming with wild dolphins and saw my first coral reef while I was learning to scuba dive. From this point, I realised my undeniable passion and love for the ocean. It felt like a calling, and I am extremely fortunate that I have been able to follow that and make my greatest passion my life.
2. When was your first time in the Maldives? And what were your first impressions of our country?
I am so lucky to have travelled to the Maldives several times. The first time I visited, it blew my mind (and it actually still continues to blow my mind!)! I stayed at LUX* South Ari. I couldn’t believe the clarity of the water, how warm it was and how the ocean was teeming with life. I was so overwhelmed with happiness when swimming alongside whale sharks and freediving with a congregation of over one hundred manta rays!
I was also so amazed by the local Maldivian guides. They are so knowledgeable and passionate about their home. It makes such a big difference to connect with locals that share passion for the ocean.
As an ocean conservationist, I also love visiting the Maldives because it is the perfect place if you are seeking an eco-friendly approach to travel. There are so many resorts focused on sustainability and many conservation organisations working to protect marine life, like the MWSRP (Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme).
3. What are your favourite diving spots in the Maldives?
My most thrilling dive spot is definitely tiger shark freediving with Pelagic Divers Fuvahmulah. The site is only 7 metres deep and a two minute dhoni boat ride from the harbour. Ahmed Inah is a local guide on the island and he ensures that you can safely freedive with the tiger sharks and gain a greater appreciation of them! It was a life changing experience and certainly the best place to freedive with tiger sharks in the world. Fuvahmulah is also a local island in the South of The Maldives and staying there was such an adventure - you travel by scooter, the food is incredible and the locals are so friendly. The island is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, so the reef is also pristine and beautiful. If you are a scuba diver, you can see whale sharks, mantas and thresher sharks too (it’s a bit too deep for most casual freedivers at 30 meters)!
A great way to check a lot of freedive location boxes, is to go on a Liveaboard. I spent a week with Carpe Diem Cruises and it was more diving than I had ever had in my life! You are able to explore up to 4 dive sites a day and you travel to different Atolls with Maldives. My favourite experience was the night freediving with manta rays and whale sharks off the back of the boat. Another is the Golden Wall, which is a spectacular, colourful shallow reef with a steep wall dropping off into the channel. There is just so much to explore and you will have amazing experiences with so much time in the water. The Dive Guides on board were also so knowledgeable about the sites, and the boat team were so helpful with ensuring that we had a great experience freediving, while the other guests were scuba diving.
LUX* South Ari Atoll Resort and Villas is the perfect destination for freediving with whale sharks in the Maldives. It’s quite a popular spot, but if you know how to freedive then you can avoid the surface traffic and dive down to the sharks. LUX* are also at the forefront of environmental conservation - there is no plastic on the island, they have the largest floating solar installation in the Maldives, and a very special coral growing programme that guests can get involved with. I was able to assist the Marine Biologist Centre guide, Ahmed Rashid in freediving down to the seabed to plant some coral. You can also freedive with mantas at LUX*, which is one of my favourites too!
I also had a great time freediving the shipwreck in Vaavu Atoll while staying at Cinnamon Velifushi. It’s a shallow wreck, at 13 metres deep and it’s incredible to see the abundance of fish life that have made the wreck their home. But the highlight of staying at the beautiful Cinnamon Velifushi resort was definitely freediving with the nurse sharks. I have fallen in love with nurse sharks and they are one of the most incredible fish to freedive with.
4. What is the most memorable experience you have had here?
I have had SO many unforgettable moments in the Maldives! If I absolutely had to choose the most memorable of my last trip, I think it would be freediving with the nurse sharks at Dhiggiri. There are so many of them and they have no respect for personal distance, so they swim all around you, and into you too! They are curious but completely harmless. They are so, so cute and have snuggle parties at the bottom of the seabed - they are one of the few sharks that can breathe without swimming and they do that by lying on the bottom facing towards the current, which allows the water to flow through their gills. So, they all lie on the bottom together during the day to rest, and you can dive down and lie next to them. If you’re lucky you’ll catch one yawning for the camera like I did!
5. How do you think we can help connect people with the ocean and the plethora of marine life living beneath?
The best way to connect to something is to experience it for yourself! I have introduced thousands of children and adults through teaching freediving. I would encourage everyone to travel to the Maldives to embark on a life changing and transformative adventure, all on one breath! I also taught lots of people freediving while in the Maldives and it is certainly also the best place to learn to freedive in the world!